By Ivan Tamba
I used to hold closely to the idea that others controlled my life. Why? Because I was a child who had parents to tell him what to do. When my neighbor Janine, a 48-year-old divorced white woman, passed away, I realized that living your life meant not waiting around for others to call the shots.
In my teens, I would spend summers clearing out the weeds and bushes in her yard in Wheaton, Illinois as the new millennium dawned, while she sat and watched. Our odd friendship grew by the years, and the bond became one where she needed me more than I needed her – and not just to trim the weeds.
“Why don’t you have kids?” an ignorant 13-year-old me asked her one day.
“It just wasn’t in the cards,” she replied.
“Why didn’t you get remarried?” I’d ask.
“Because I’m too old,” she’d say.
Most of her answers were followed by a desperate look on her face, begging me to mercifully release her from the conversation. She wasn’t strong. She was becoming weaker and weaker by the year, and it showed.
Several months before she passed, she poured a lifetime’s accumulation of regret into three words of advice for me.
“Be great,” she told me. “Live.”
I knew from her words, and the sadness with which she spoke them, that she never lived the life she wanted, and she wanted to share as much wisdom as she could to keep me moving forward.
But when you’re 13, it’s hard to see the big picture; I had trouble understanding that there was a picture beyond the wages she was paying me to tend her garden, that though she had land and money, I had a future that I could make my own. I wasn’t ready yet to view my life in terms of possibilities, while Janine had already resigned herself to the conclusion that all of hers had already shriveled up and left her.
Years later, an ocean away
A few weeks ago. I met a young man named Abel. I often find him outside of the local laundromat where I’m working now in Ethiopia, wearing the same striped white and green shirt, with blue jeans, and knockoff Vans with holes in them – to go along with unkempt curly hair. His problems don’t start there. His family has left him, his grades aren’t the best, and he has no job.
“What drives you in life?” I asked him.
“I want to know everything,” he quickly replied.
“Well, yes, sure, but what I mean is, what makes you want to keep living?” I replied.
He jumped back with, “I want to know as much as I can about the world.”
It’s always a lot to take in with him, but we work on a series of situations to specify his goals in life.
“Who leads your life?” I’ll ask.
“God,” he always replies, without hesitation.
“Has God ever failed you?” I respond.
“No, but my life is not going how I want it,” he says.
“Well, trust him,” I say. “If he hasn’t failed you, then you’re a work in progress.”
Abel is a very pessimistic person, but he’s getting the idea of what it means to “take charge of your life.”
“God wants me to be something, and I have to listen,” he now replies.
No one asks him about his future, possibly assuming he doesn’t have one worth speaking of. That means a lot of silence and introspection – learning to think differently. When I pose a new thought, he’ll stand, look at the ground, look back up at me, and then take a deep breath and say, “Ok. I will call you later.”
He’s a smart kid; his grades may not reflect that, but it’s obvious he does a lot of thinking. Thinking alone is great, but like I always tell him, “Sometimes it’s great to think out loud with people you trust. Don’t be afraid of feedback.”
It’s a daily struggle trying to tell a young man like Abel that he can change his life by first changing how he views himself, but in doing so, I’ve been able to see the responsibility behind being a mentor.
I love my former neighbor. Janine wanted to give me more—I could see it on her face—but she didn’t know how. Remembering her, and knowing now what she was trying to say, I know my role: to be a mentor for Abel. To believe in him. To let him see that he is in control of his destiny.
To make sure he knows that, despite his disadvantages, he can be great. He can truly live.
Ivan Tamba is an American working as a Peace Corps Education Volunteer, serving as an English Specialist in Dessie, Ethiopia.